I always wondered how big stars managed to play with people who were obviously below their pay grade. What must Gretzky have felt, when he made a brilliant play to put a puck directly on the tape of some scrub who immediately shot it into the stands? What about Orr, thinking four plays ahead, and bound to play with a guy who could only react in the moment? Hockey is a team game. That's what makes it wonderful to watch. It's also what makes it torture on the gifted. Watching Carey Price these days, one wonders if he's not experiencing a little bit of that frustration.
The young goaltender has responded to the impossible pressure he faced in the wake of the Jaro Halak trade with admirable aplomb. He's been the model of consistency, with only an occasional bad goal against. On most nights, he's the reason his team wins. Rarely is he the reason why it loses. He's doing all of it with a newfound maturity and a poise he's developed even while his every move is scrutinized by thousands of self-appointed critics.
So, really, nobody could blame him if he's getting frustrated with the terrible team in front of him. It's got to be maddening for him to make a couple of really nice saves to keep his teammates in the game, only to see perimeter chance after perimeter chance turned away by his counterpart at the other end. It has to drive him crazy sometimes to be faced with one odd-man rush after another when his patchwork defence breaks down. Last year, when he was struggling and probably not nearly as entitled to righteous indignation, Price would glare at the offending defencemen. This season, he's much more stoic about his teammates' mistakes, which, considering the number of them he sees every night, is impressive.
While Price's play has been above reproach for most of the season, the team's total reliance on his ability is a big problem. It's great to have the kind of goalie who can bail you out under pressure. It's not so great to build your entire game plan upon his ability to do that, but that's what the Canadiens have done.
The defence plays a delicate game of angling skilled opponenets to the outside. They block shots and passing lanes to give Price more room. The problem is, when the opponents don't play along and allow the Canadiens' D to box them out; when they crash Price and crowd the defence instead, the system breaks down and Price is left hanging.
The problem is compounded by the forwards playing a defence-first game that has them spending little time in the O-zone because they're charged with rushing back to help defend their own end. It's tough to score when nobody's in front of the net and the guy in the corner has one, easily-defended passing option because his linemates are waiting to hurry back on D.
The Canadiens have speed. They have skill. They have intestinal fortitude. They don't have the goals to show for it, because they don't play a system that encourages offence. People will blame Martin, and he deserves the criticism to some degree. On the other hand, critics also have to understand that a more offensive system requires a strong defence with good puck-handling abilities. The Canadiens don't have that. With the injuries they've got, the best they can muster is holding the fort in their own end. When they fail at that, Price pays the...well...you know.
The Habs have serious injury problems. They also have deep limitations when it comes to aggression and goal production. These are not issues that can be fixed by a couple of deadline-day tweaks. If Pierre Gauthier is going to make a move, he should either make a significant move that will bring serious help long term...which will require giving up something significant in exchange...or he should do nothing. If the Canadiens fall out of the playoff picture, so be it. Perhaps they'll luck into a draft pick that will fill one of the team's many needs sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, Carey Price is the only man on the team who brings his solid, reliable, often brilliant game every night. He deserves credit for that. He also deserves applause for not showing a star's frustration with teammates who play like anything but.